You can’t drive far in Tucson, Ariz., without spying one of the ubiquitous bright-green flower magnets that cling to the backs of cars, reminding you to “be kind.” It’s a message that appears all over the city, in handmade mosaics or on ceramic bells scattered randomly around town for people to find.
You’ll also see the message in hundreds of the city’s schools, and on more and more campuses across the country — a way to encourage compassion among students in an era of indiscriminate school violence. Just last Friday, another tragedy: A 16-year-old student — an athlete, drama club member and twice her class president — was stabbed to death in a stairwell allegedly by a fellow classmate at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn.
Tragedy and grief led to the “be kind” message in Tucson, where the handmade bells, totems of positivity, have become a tradition. Known as Ben’s Bells, they were first created by Jeannette Maré in 2003, a year after the sudden death of her young son, Ben. It was simple acts of kindness from strangers, Maré says — an unexpected smile, a door held open — that had helped her bear the early days of her enormous grief. And so, as a memorial to Ben, she and a small group of friends began crafting bells out of clay, copper and string, and hanging them around town along with a written note encouraging people to take the bell home and to remember to be kind to others. As more of Maré’s friends heard about what she was doing, they showed up to help. The movement — and Maré’s organization — grew organically, with more and more volunteers identifying with its simple and fundamental prescription, Maré says.
“We’re always searching for something that’s way out there” when it comes to seeking solutions, says Maré, “and the point of Ben’s Bells is that it’s actually right here, in this interaction, with this guy at Circle K [convenience store]. Happiness is about savoring the ordinary moments, and that’s not what we’ve been promoting in our culture for a very long time.”
In 2007, local schools started approaching Maré, asking how they could introduce her message to kids in the hopes of not only fostering a culture of kindness in schools, but also to help reduce bullying and protect against school violence. So, Ben’s Bells developed two kindness programs — Kind Kids (for pre-K through fifth grade) and Kind Campus (for middle school and high school) — which now reach more than 150,000 students in 278 schools in Tucson and beyond. The programs are constantly being launched in schools around the country, including, most recently, 57 schools in and around Newtown, Conn.
It’s simple programming and it’s up to each school to interpret its broad guidelines. At one Arizona school, “kindness crews,” student-led after-school groups, embark on quests to perform random acts of kindness: For instance, one day they held an impromptu parent-appreciation rally as parents came to pick up their children. The group held up handmade signs and cheered as parents pulled up to the school in their cars. At another school, students created a “kindness tree” on whose blank flowers kids record acts of kindness they do with their families, and display them for the rest of the school. Kids also organize schoolwide events to celebrate empathy and kindness, where students, along with their parents and teachers, publicly acknowledge noteworthy acts. Teachers and other adults are encouraged to model kind behavior, too, and they receive monthly educational materials to help them teach kids how to behave more thoughtfully — and to discuss why extending compassion to others is so important.
Jamie Kasen, a second-grade teacher at Lulu Walker Elementary School in Casas Adobes, Ariz., brought the program to her school and says it’s led to a noticeable change. “In day-to-day conversations, within my own classroom, just hearing my kids and the way they speak to each other, I’m pretty amazed by it,” Kasen says.
But don’t take Kasen’s word for it. Researchers at the University of Arizona are now studying the effects of Ben’s Bells’ school-based programs to try to grow them into a national, evidence-based intervention. The scientists are still figuring out exactly how to quantify kindness, and how to measure the impact it has on kids’ health and happiness, and that of their relationships and communities. But what they can say for sure is that the Ben’s Bells model stands out against other similar school-based programs. For one thing, it emphasizes and rewards positive behavior instead of only castigating misbehavior. The researchers say this philosophy appears to help the program gather a much broader base of support and buy-in from kids, which strengthens its effectiveness.
“The thing that’s powerful about Ben’s Bells is that it becomes a social movement within the school setting,” says Dr. Chuck Raison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a member of the Ben’s Bells board, whose own research has shown positive biological effects associated with a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation that fosters compassion. “Kids are so overwhelmingly influenced by peer pressure, that by organically changing the markers of what qualifies as being a cool kid, and moving that marker from the bullying status elite and being nasty to other kids to setting up a climate that’s more supportive of the most vulnerable, you see a huge impact.” Although combatting bullying isn’t the primary goal of Ben’s Bells, the program appears to have had that effect, according to anecdotal evidence from teachers who have participated in it.
The positive trends aren’t surprising when you consider the reams of research that have already been conducted on the impact of compassion and social connectedness. Maré, a former professor of discourse analysis at the University of Arizona herself, notes that a community’s sense of connectedness — in other words, its social capital — has been found to be directly associated with rates of social ills, including crime, depression and bullying. The more strongly people are connected, the more they are inoculated against these problems. Over the decades, she says, levels of connectedness in the United States as a whole have been on the decline.
Another reason that Tucson has embraced Ben’s Bells’ message so wholeheartedly is that the program was introduced by one of its own. It wasn’t an initiative dreamed up by outsiders and suddenly foisted on the city’s schools and residents. Further, the school-based program has built-in reinforcements even off campus, since the “be kind” motto has already been woven into the fabric of the society: Everywhere you look, the signature flower logo is there, from murals and bumper stickers to T-shirts, ceramic coins and bells. It’s a message that kids won’t easily forget.
“We’ve all done research in the community and in schools, some of us for a really long time, and to find something like this that’s really embraced by a community is really unusual, and that was part of what piqued our interest,” says Michele Walsh, an associate research professor at the University of Arizona who is studying the Ben’s Bells project.
Tragedy is a powerful pollinator for those small ceramic flowers. Ben’s Bells sprang from Maré’s personal loss, after all, and bloomed in 2011, when a shooting in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson left six dead and 12 others injured, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The city plunged into despair and turned to Ben’s Bells — with volunteers crafting and hanging 1,400 bells in the aftermath of the attack — for solace. The following year, another mass shooting, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 children, sent another town reeling. Community members in both Tucson and Newtown reached out to each other, and Ben’s Bells opened its second location in the Connecticut town in 2013. Since then, schools in other cities have expressed interest in adopting Kind Kids and Kind Campus, and plans are in the works to expand. Maré is careful to note, however, that her organization is selective about the communities it enters — choosing only those that can demonstrate a broad base of support.
The program isn’t just about responding to tragedy, Maré says. But when catastrophes happen, people truly begin to understand the emotions that nurtured her organization’s earliest moments — the sense of loss, the need for something to do, the small connections and acts of kindness that pull people through. Maré knows how powerful these feelings are, and that they serve a purpose, not only in times of mourning, but also in our everyday lives. “That’s what Ben’s Bells is about, learning to connect and that we need each other — and that we are all in this together,” she says.